The most clichéd, yet satisfying, moment in any movie comes when the brutally bullying antagonist discovers he’s lost that which had empowered his abusive nature. Wait…I take that back. Seeing that fear in the bad guy’s eyes is the second most satisfying movie moment, the first being the inevitable administration of long-overdue justice that follows.
Though evidence has mounted for a while, today it became official: Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) is now on its own, as the guardian angel/demon that once enabled the firm’s assault on our capital markets has clearly severed that relationship. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from the news that Goldman was censured and fined by NYSE and the SEC for specific faults in “execution and clearing” (another way of saying “naked short selling”).
What changed? After all, Goldman is still rich, right?
Well…sort of. Goldman may be flush with cash, but with pressure mounting on politicians to reject any of it in the form of campaign contributions, suddenly that cash doesn’t spend nearly as well as it used to. At the same time, it’s probably safe to assume Goldman’s allure as a future client has been severely degraded in the eyes of private sector career-minded regulators.
In other words, Goldman’s gold has lost its luster, and with it, the firm’s political ‘juice’. I can only imagine the look on their faces when Goldman brass first realized why their calls were not being returned: their power was gone. And folks with badges were knocking on the door.
Goldman’s role as a facilitator of illegal, short-side market manipulation will never come to symbolize its villainy in the mind of the public the way knowingly selling its clients garbage CDOs on behalf of John Paulson will. But that’s what makes this latest development even more significant: it suggests a sort of “piling on” mentality that was inconceivable just one month ago (keep in mind this is the company that, evidence suggests, successfully lobbied to have even legitimate short selling banned once the practice began to impact its share price). This, in turn, may be an inadvertent signal from regulatory “insiders” that Goldman’s prospects of emerging intact from this storm are slim.
Do not mistake the tone of this post for contentment, for this particular action doesn’t come close to addressing what I suspect is the true breadth and depth of Goldman’s role in short-side market manipulations. Indeed, the bulk of this particular complaint focuses on a few infractions observed over a few weeks in late 2008. Goldman, for its part, attributes the problem to an inconsequential bookkeeping error. If that’s true, a half-million dollar fine for an accounting mistake makes Goldman’s plight seem even more dire.
In the end, what’s most significant about this complaint is the insight it provides into how the system works when inappropriate influence ceases to be a factor in the regulatory process (something we’ve grown accustomed to not seeing): investigators investigate, infractions are cited, penalties applied, juice ignored.
I’m not convinced it’s within human nature to develop a financial markets regulatory paradigm able to consistently achieve this ideal (though I’m certain we can do better than what we’ve got). The alternative is to focus on the other side of the equation by limiting the capacity of any market participant to become so influential the rules cease to apply.